He parks it in the handicapped space in front of Chase Bank, at First Avenue. It’s the one with a traffic sawhorse strapped to the roof. Nguyen has painted the words “CIA” and “DEMON” on the sawhorse’s cross-beams. The side of the van usually facing the street is covered by a once-yellow road sign, now painted blue. In eight-inch block letters, he’s written, “CIA A BAD LIAR.”
Sometimes passing drivers honk in solidarity. Pedestrians often stop to read the smaller posters filled with bullet points that adorn the van’s windows and hood. Between Nguyen’s imperfect English, complicated history and point-blank accusation of mental and physical torture at the hands of dialysis technicians controlled by “Big Brother,” most passersby walk away looking confused, amused or uncomfortable.
One small strip of poster board taped to the passenger-side window poses Nguyen’s ultimate riddle:
“Why does a two-master man live lonely in his car?”
Nguyen is a Vietnamese immigrant and naturalized citizen who came to the U.S. in 1995 to find a way to survive kidney failure. Despite language barriers, his physical disability and his growing dependence on dialysis, he earned master’s degrees from San Diego State University in physics and computer science. He was a respected calculus instructor and a certified election volunteer, and, to this day, he plays bass guitar in a rock band that’s much loved by San Diego’s Vietnamese community.
Yet, April marks the 12th month of Nguyen’s self-imposed homelessness and the fifth year of the downward spiral of his life. He has chronicled the process in sharp detail in diaries and scanned documents, which he uploads exhaustively to his website. Police reports prove his persecution. Letters of recommendation serve as testimony to his competence. He posts photographs of bloody bandages after a dialysis treatment as evidence of abuse. Even a three-legged dog that approached him at the Hall of Justice is cataloged as a CIA operative.
The answer to Nguyen’s riddle is a series of paradoxes. He rails against the CIA while acknowledging that the government is keeping him alive through free healthcare and disability income. He’s determined to live on the street until the world agrees that he’s sane, though few will ever consider living in a van a rational behavior.
“We’ve kind of been at a loss as to what to do,” computer scientist Dr. Joseph Lewis, who supervised Nguyen’s master’s thesis, says. “He doesn’t seem to respond to invitations to seek the kind of help he probably needs. It’s also not clear how much of what he’s claiming may or may not be true. He does seem to have some evidence to corroborate his claims, but some of the things he says are definitely outlandish.”
Why does Nguyen, a man with two master’s degrees, live lonely in his car? I spent nine months trying to find out. Here’s the story behind the remarkable man with the alarming signs.
The first time I approached Nguyen, he was protesting on the cramped island of sidewalk across from the convention center in the middle of San Diego Comic-Con. Surrounded by zombies, geeks and handbillers, Nguyen was a comic-book character in his own right. Shaded by a conical hat, he carried a double-decker sign: “JUSTICE? CIA IS EVIL” on top, the six reasons why he’s the “#1 Specimen of CIA’s Brain Control Study” on the poster beneath it.
On a whim, I handed him my card. He examined it, looked at me, then put it away without saying a word.
Three weeks later, Nguyen sent me an email with the subject line, “I can teach anybody how to play piano/keyboard in 10 minutes.” I met him a few days later at the Hall of Justice for a free lesson. He leaned a few hand-drawn instructional posters against a tree, sat me on a stool and handed me a length of cardboard on which he’d drawn a keyboard. He asked me to time him.
The soft-spoken man explained how the musical-notation system he invented is easier to learn than the classical clefs. Instead of bent teaspoons on a five-lined staff, Nguyen uses a combination of numbers and letters, based on the note’s position on the keyboard and the duration it should be held. His sheet music looks like algebra homework, but it makes a lot of sense.
I learned to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” albeit silently on a cardboard keyboard, in just over eight minutes.
For our interviews, Nguyen preferred to meet on the side of the County Administration Center that faces the bay. Each time, he would park his van in the handicapped space in front of the picturesque fountain. Families of newlyweds just married by the county clerk would regularly struggle to find ways to take group photographs without his “CIA/DEMON” sawhorse in the background.
Nguyen is always neatly dressed and well-prepared with documents. As echoed by his doctor’s statements in his medical records, aside from the whole CIA thing, he seems to be a perfectly functional adult. He’s always calm, his thoughts organized. One would never suspect that he’s capable of the tenor of rage and desperation displayed on his website and van.
The youngest of seven children whose father was a soldier and later became a school teacher, Nguyen grew up during the Vietnam War in Hue, a city just barely on the losing side of the border between the North and the South. After reunification, Nguyen was educated well, all the way through college, earning a bachelor’s degree in physics.
The trajectory of Nguyen’s life has been influenced by two competing factors, his brilliant mind and his dying kidneys.
Everything changed in 1987, his senior year of college, when his entire body swelled up. The first doctor misdiagnosed it as a vitamin deficiency. The second doctor told him the problem was with his kidneys and that his best chance for survival was abroad.
He married his wife, who was half-American, in 1991, and within four years, they were living in the U.S.
After a year in Albany, N.Y., Nguyen moved his young family to San Diego to be part of a larger Vietnamese community. He worked in a restaurant while taking classes at Grossmont College.
In 1997, his kidneys failed, but he was able to sponsor his niece to move from Vietnam to the U.S. to be his kidney donor. The transplant was successful, and Nguyen continued his schooling, studying English and math, and picking up extra money as a tutor.
“Tuan shows a great deal of potential and is a very mature, focused student,” Larry Langley, a professor at Grossmont, wrote in a letter recommending Nguyen for graduate school. “In my thirty-four years of college teaching, I rate Tuan as one of the top ten students of mathematics I have worked with.”
He transferred to SDSU to study physics, but the clock was ticking on his new kidney.
“She’s only 90 pounds,” Nguyen says of his niece. “So even though we had the matched blood, when the kidney go into my body, it worked-over. It slowed down year by year.”
By the end of 2001, he was back on dialysis. Despite the setback, Nguyen pushed on, finishing his first master’s degree and working toward a second in computer science. His second thesis combined his gift for music with his talent for programming. Under the supervision of artificial-intelligence specialist Dr. Joseph Lewis, Nguyen designed a program that could generate simple musical sequences, assess the quality, then combine them into longer compositions.
“At that time,” Lewis tells CityBeat, “other than being a medical inconvenience, [dialysis] didn’t seem that impactful— he was married with two little girls and did a fine job on his thesis. In class, he was a very attentive student. He definitely spoke up and asked questions, contributed ideas when everything was open-ended. Even as of the day of his thesis defense, it would never have occurred to me that he would descend into this madness.”
Nguyen has been removed from the kidney-transplant waiting list because he has rejected psychiatric treatment.
In summer 2004, Nguyen interned on an Office of Naval Research project that required him to create a computer model that would simulate how aquatic mammals respond to sounds. The data was derived from testing on living creatures.
Here’s what Nguyen writes on his website about the experience at SPAWAR Systems Center (SSC):
“At the end of my internship, one day Dr. Houser called me to the dolphin research place to see and touch a real dolphin. I did not know how long the dolphin was put on the floor of a small office…. They blew a high pitch whistle and measure signals from the dolphin’s head. I touched the dolphin as Dr. Houser encourage me to do and watched their works for a while. I felt bad for a dolphin was being tortured….”
Nguyen had hoped to find employment with SSC after college. He applied and was rejected. He thinks he was disqualified because he felt sympathy for the dolphins.
“Now I am in a worser situation that the SSC dolphin’s. I am an CIA’s dolphin,” he writes.
Nguyen says he became a subject of what he describes as a secret CIA mind-control study in 2006. He went to Sharp Memorial Hospital twice that year.
He doesn’t remember much from the first time. He says he suffered a blood infection after dialysis and a high fever. He blacked out, and his wife later told him that he chased his children around—including his baby twin sons—while yelling in his childhood Hue dialect. He was taken away in an ambulance.
One night in the hospital, he says, he heard an old woman crying for help. When he found out she’d died, he confronted the staff and wound up sedated and bound by the ankle and wrist to the hospital bed until family came to get him.
A few weeks later, he returned to Sharp so that the kidney his niece donated could be removed. On his last night in the hospital, he says he heard a voice talking to him through the intercom attached to his bed. The voice, he says, offered him a job with an organization Nguyen understood to be the CIA. But first they needed to test him.
“Of course I wanted to work for the government,” he says. “To be a member of their organization, that is my dream. That is why I say OK and volunteer to be a specimen tested by the machine.”
Suddenly, the voices were no longer on the intercom, but in his head. He knew it must be the CIA, because only that organization would have such powerful mind-control technology.
The job was a lie, he says. When his niece came to pick him up, he rushed out of the hospital. The police came by his house later to find out why he hadn’t finished his discharge paperwork.
Those were the first two times he was called “mentally ill.” He says that’s a slander perpetrated by the CIA to hide the fact they now have the ability to insert ideas into his mind.
His life spun further from his control over the next few years. He posted his account of CIA torture on his Grossmont College faculty web page and was immediately suspended. Without financial stability, his family began to fall apart, and his wife filed a restraining order against him. He spent a few days in jail. Now, without work, he sustains himself on his monthly disability check. “Big Brother lie about me and destroy my life,” he says. “Their words—I have mental illness—that lead to no job, lead to no money, lead to family trouble and divorce. All that stuff, it came from the ‘mental illness’ thing.”
For a decade, Nguyen had collected his pill bottles to build a sculpture that would represent his struggle. Using tape and American-flag-patterned paper plates, he formed the bottles into a matrix spelling the words “My Life” and titled it “Angel or Evil.”
“‘Angel’ means country,” he says. “They use medical to save me. That represents saving my life. But, it may be ‘Evil’ if they save my life to study me as a specimen.”
Through Medi-Cal, Nguyen is on hemodialysis three-and-a-half hours a day, three days a week: Blood is drained from an artery, passed through a filter that removes the wastes the kidney normally would, then passed back in through a vein. He’s been kicked out of at least three clinics after staff complained that he verbally abused them or exhibited threatening behavior.
One barred him after discovering that he was shooting photos and short videos of staff and patients and posting them on his website.
Nguyen re-creates long transcripts of his conservations with dialysis clinic staff online. They reveal a mutually hostile relationship. Staff seem uncertain of how he will act, and Nguyen is always wary that their actions are part of a large conspiracy to test the limits of his sanity.
A study published in Dialysis & Transplantation in 2006 revealed high levels of distrust among dialysis patients. More than 20 percent of the patients surveyed did not trust their doctors, while one out of 10 patients displayed “extremely elevated levels of distrust which could be interpreted as being paranoid.” Those numbers are skewed because paranoia is common among patients who use illicit narcotics or already suffered from a mental-health condition. Nguyen doesn’t touch the former and denies the latter.
In 2007, Japanese researchers at Jichi Medical University studied a female patient who had been on dialysis for 20 years but had recently developed “persecutory delusions” and “auditory hallucinations” regarding the staff. The researchers theorized that she was suffering from “narrative deprivation,” in which patients “are deprived of chances to express their personal feelings about their illness and be listened to attentively by medical staff.” In absence of that attention, they fill in what’s missing with conspiracy.
To dismiss Nguyen’s claims outright misses the bigger picture. Patients have good reason to be suspicious of dialysis clinics.
In January, California Watch, a nonprofit news organization, reported that 46 percent of California’s dialysis clinicians had failed new federally mandated competency tests. That report followed a December 2010 expose by ProPublica, another investigative-journalism outlet, that found that California leads the nation in inspection backlogs for dialysis clinics. According to ProPublica’s data, more than half of the state’s dialysis centers haven’t received a thorough inspection in five years.
“We inspect ourselves,” Jane Kramer, vice president of public affairs for Fresenius Medical Care, says. “We hold ourselves to a very high standard and we have devoted quality-assurance professionals who do nothing but that.”
Kramer says she can’t discuss individual patients, but she points out that FMC serves 130,000 patients.
“Dialysis patients are very, very ill in general,” she says. “They have many disorders and conditions. Our responsibility is to treat them as an individual and to provide care and compassion to them as an individual.”
DaVita did not respond to emailed inquiries.
When College Dialysis—the clinic that was serving Nguyen in 2006 when he first had his CIA experience—was inspected last year, investigators turned up 29 pages worth of deficiencies, from poor hand-washing skills to fly infestations.
According to documents obtained by qualitysafepatientcare.com, investigators found that most of the clinic’s staff had not been adequately trained on the machines and that technicians were not properly changing the settings on dialysis machines for each patient.
More disturbing was the finding that for 13 days in 2010, the facility was using dialysis water that was contaminated with potentially toxic levels of aluminum, fluoride and sulfate. That week, 14 patients tested positive for high levels of aluminum. According to the renal-care text books Primer of Kidney Diseases and Critical Care Nephrology, aluminum in dialysis water is the primary of cause of dialysis dementia.
The condition includes symptoms such as psychosis, personality changes, slurring of the speech and paranoid delusions.
Nguyen has not been diagnosed with this condition, which is good, because dialysis dementia is fatal, usually killing within six months.
For most of last year, Nguyen spent his mornings hanging out in front of the Hall of Justice with his protest signs, but he would turn up at just about any popular daytime event Downtown. At the Society for Neuroscience’s annual conference in November, he picketed in unity with the anti-animal-testing crowd. When the disabled cruise ship Splendor washed up in the harbor that same month, Nguyen protested on the Embarcadero to catch the waiting media frenzy. The last time you would’ve seen Nguyen protesting in person would have been Dec. 30.
Big Brother finally came to silence him during the Big Bay Balloon Parade.
According to a San Diego Police report, officers detained Nguyen after he “disrupted the Holiday bowl parade by carrying a picket sign and yelling obsenities [sic] at women and children.”
In Nguyen’s version of the story, he was protesting in front of a television-station booth, yelling things like, “CIA is evil. CIA is demon. CIA is stupid. CIA trained Bin Laden.” One of the reporters called the police.
Here’s where both accounts agree: He was handcuffed, stuffed in a patrol car, questioned, evaluated and then handed over to a mental-health hospital. He was released two days later.
The problem is—the police can’t really do that.
Section 5150, as it’s called, allows officers to involuntarily detain mentally ill people who haven’t committed a crime provided they meet certain criteria.
“If the officers get there and somebody’s just a little different, for whatever reason marching to their own drum, we’re not going to 5150 them if they’re not gravely disabled, not a danger to themselves and not a danger to others,” SDPD spokesperson Lt. Andra Brown said, though she could not address Nguyen’s case specifically. She says officers get mental-health training in the police academy and refresher courses every 24 months. Special police clinicians—one interviewed Nguyen—are available nearly 24-7.
The police argued he was a danger to others and gravely disabled, though they never stated what made them believe each was the case. In the “gravely disabled” section of the report, where they are supposed to show the subject is so mentally ill he can’t meet his basic needs, they checked only the “had malnourished appearance” box.
“I don’t see anything in the report that justifies the arrest under 5150,” David Blair-Loy, legal director for the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, says in an email. “Assuming it’s true, the fact that he ‘disrupted the Holiday bowl parade by carrying a picket sign and yelling obsenities [sic] at women and children’ is not even close to probable cause. And more than that, it’s protected speech.”
Nguyen doesn’t want to get locked up again, so now he just lets his van do the talking, while he hides inside.
At a Vietnamese community Valentine’s Day party, Nguyen stood at the end of the Lucky Star stage, in the smoke and laser beams, and just grooved on his bass with his band, Autumn Drift. When Nguyen plays, he beams with the same expression he gets when he talks about his children.
His bandmates and his niece visited him when he was committed. That’s the extent of his support network. His niece hasn’t told his family in Vietnam about his situation.
“I’m a liar because I don’t want them to worry,” she says. “All the way back there, they cannot help. Maybe Grandma dies right away if she knows.”
She’s sad for her uncle, who dreamt of working for America but whose health held him back. She takes his claims seriously.
“I don’t know what’s true or not,” she says, “but if I believe him, what can I do? I don’t know anything about CIA.”
Lewis, his former professor, worries that the damage might be permanent because Nguyen once told him about being exposed to mercury as a child. Lewis feels guilty for being unable to help. He wasn’t willing to reinforce Nguyen’s conspiracy theories by pretending to agree.
“Even if he secretly believes in this screwy attempt to use mind control on him, I hope he could suppress that belief enough in order to receive the care he needs to survive,” he says. “My most ambitious hope is for him to come back to be the person who wrote two master’s theses…. He could contribute to really interesting science.”
I worry about Nguyen, too, especially after he uploaded a letter from Sharp Hospital about a new development in his health. His doctor diagnosed him with atrial fibrillation, in which the upper two chambers of the heart flutter rather than beat. Believing it a new form of torture, Nguyen left hospital care against his doctor’s advice. According to the American Heart Association, 15 percent of strokes in the U.S. are caused by this condition.
Nguyen’s niece wants him to move in with her. I ask him why he can’t sleep indoors at night and protest during the day.
“You have to sacrifice something in order to convince people; that is my thinking,” he says. “People in my band, they say, ‘Life too short. Why you have to sacrifice your life like that?’ I say, ‘Because I’m alone versus the most powerful agency in the world. That is the only way I can get the public’s help.”
I ask what would satisfy him. “I want entire San Diegan people to know the true story and I want my medical status have been cleared by doctor, by dialysis clinic or my hospital,” he says, “so I can have good condition to get into universities again.”
He dreams of a doctorate in astronomy. I tell him no one will clear him while he’s still living in his van.
“Your argument is similar to the many psychiatrists I have talked to—it’s like chicken and the egg, my problem,” he says.